Project K

timeThis year at Kensington we are undertaking a fundamental review of our curriculum.

  • We believe that the limited time we have with our children isn’t used as effectively as it could be.
  • We believe that the current curriculum doesn’t deliver the knowledge and skills required for the 21st century.
  • We believe that a great deal of what we do that makes the greatest difference is done outside of the ‘curriculum’.

We also believe that the evidence supports this:

  • By 2022 there will be a shortage of 3 million high skilled workers in the UK alone – Guardian, March 2017
  • 87% of first year students find it difficult to cope with academic or social aspects of university life – UPP Student Experience study, 2017
  • 47% of jobs will disappear in the next 25 years – Oxford University, 2016

So we are spending this year researching. We are looking at the latest thinking on the curriculum. We’re combining this – the ‘what’ of what we teach – with research into the latest thinking on cognition, learning, and memory. By the end we plan to have a curriculum that has clarity on what our children need and also how we will deliver it so that it sticks.

As part of this, we are gathering a wide variety of views and opinions. Of course, we are talking to our children, parents and staff but we also want to know what others think. Particularly people who have been personally successful, people who are involved in recruiting, and people who lead or manage teams.

  • What are the skills and knowledge you have found invaluable in getting to where you are today?
  • What skills and knowledge do you look for when you are recruiting?
  • What are the most important attributes for your team members to have?
  • What do you believe is most important for our children at primary school?
  • If you could go back in time and tell a teacher one thing you need to be successful in the future, what would it be?
  • What challenges do you see ahead and what skills and knowledge will our children need to navigate these?

If you have a view on this, we would love to hear it. Either comment below or Contact us through the Contact page and we’ll be in touch to get your thoughts.


A place everyone loves to be


My obsession since I joined Kensington has been culture and ethos. I know this is true for many leaders and I’m sure my former life in marketing plays its part. Nevertheless, it is monumentally important and ignored or sidelined at your peril. With the right culture and ethos, anything can be achieved. Of course, the converse is also true.

Of course, ‘how things are done around here’, happens whether you ‘do’ ethos or not. Every organisation has its own set of cultural norms: what people say it’s like; what it is actually like day-to-day, and the deep rooted culture that is so ingrained it is rarely if ever considered explicitly. Kensington was no different. Much of what was good here still is. If anything, the changes that have been made have been tweaks. Small changes that have combined to make a seismic difference.

So, what have I learnt along the way that might be of value?

  1. Culture is an oil tanker not a jet ski
    It has taken me a long time to realise that culture change is happening but it really doesn’t happen quickly.

    Take some work we did around teacher ownership. What seems like a life time ago, the standard response when a child wasn’t doing very well was, ‘put them in an intervention’. Essentially: make them someone else’s problem. Clearly, this was an issue around attitude and culture. So we worked hard to improve it. We changed how Pupil Progress Meetings were run so that teachers didn’t come looking for answers but came with solutions. We empowered them as the experts on their children. We provided CPD so that they had a greater range of knowledge and strategies at their finger tips. We encouraged risk taking and made it clear that this was a team effort: when it went wrong, we reassured them and encouraged them to try something else – ‘this is hard you know’.

    The result…’this child doesn’t get it. They need an intervention.’ Incredibly frustrating. All this work. All these changes. With seemingly zero impact. Where were we going wrong?

    The answer…patience. Things were changing. Imperceptibly at first but they were. Over time, attitudes did change. Now the idea that our teachers wouldn’t be the first port of call to solve these problems would be abhorrent…to them! This pattern has repeated many times over.

    Tip: Play the long game. Culture change is definitely a marathon, not a sprint.

  2. Less is more
    Back in my pre-teaching days, I  read Lovemarks, a book by Kevin Roberts (then CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi.) The one thing that stuck with me was that if you want people to love – in this example – your brand, you have to accept that some people will hate it.

    If you read many vision statements (particularly school ones) it is clear that this is not something people have been willing to accept. I can fully sympathise. It’s hard.

    Academic excellence is important – that goes without saying. But so is exemplary behaviour – of course! And we can’t forget the whole child – absolutely not: the arts; sport etc. Well surely keeping children safe is the most important – yup. The obesity crisis…ok. And so on. No wonder that so many visions end up as the most verbose collections of every single buzz word you can ever imagine.

    In developing your culture and ethos it is essential to be clear on what really matters to you: your children, parents, staff, community. What makes your school different? If you can get it right, people will love what you’re doing. Equally, it won’t be for everyone. Not all families or potential staff members will buy into what you’re doing and, you know what, that’s alright.

    Tip: Be bold. Simplicity is key. It doesn’t matter how well crafted your prose if it just becomes meaningless management speak.

  3. It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it
    Ultimately, all that matters is reality (ahem!) What I mean to say is that none of what is written down – no matter how fancy your deliverables or how well planned out your employee engagement programme or internal branding may be – actually matters unless it is lived, breathed and experienced every day.

    This is where we’re at now so…

    We know we have a long way to go still. We are now working on making sure that the vision we have is lived every day at the school. Again, inevitably this will be a slow process but one we have already come so far with.

    Tip: Focus on what is real; not what you want to be real. Invest your time and energy in improving what is happening day-in, day-out.

  4. Put the cart before the horse
    Our big advantage is that we haven’t come up with a vision (and set of strategic goals, guiding principles and behaviours to support that) out of thin air. This is not, ‘we would like our organisation to be like this so let’s make it happen’. We’ve spent four years creating the ethos and culture at Kensington. Four years of really listening to our children, parents and staff about what makes the school special and what they would really like to see. It has been a slow process but one that has transformed the school. Only now do we feel ready and able to put this into words and create our vision for the school. This is just the next step in the journey for us.

    I’m certainly not advocating four years as a magic number, by the way. It will depend on where your organisation is and the type of change you’re looking to instill.

    For us, it worked this way around and I believe we’re in a stronger position for it. It’s allowed us to tweak our thinking as we’ve gone and not feel tied to something that we thought was right when we started out but, as we’ve evolved, have realised isn’t.

    Tip: Put in the leg work. Taking time to understand and begin to move towards the culture you want before tying yourself to a vision and goals will help in the long-run.

    For us the result is a vision that works for our school. It provides us with the framework and direction we need to withstand the buffeting changes that happen continually in education. It guides us in our decision making and, we believe, we be a significant part of creating a school that truly delivers: for our children, our staff, our parents, and our community. Watch this space!

Rose-tinted glasses

9A886067-C80C-44E8-A592-F3B285FBC127.jpegIt was Tuesday; around 12.15pm. I was on duty in the dinner hall. I’d had a reasonably stressful morning. Nothing out of the ordinary but I could feel my shoulders were a couple of inches higher than usual – a sure sign. I was tired: a significant trigger of stress for me. I was hungry: my other main trigger. I was doing what I’d done ever since my very first playground duty…looking for the warning signs of ‘trouble’.

Being able to pre-empt issues is something I take pride in being good at. I am extremely vigilant and I’ve always ‘walked towards the noise’. As I stood there I noticed some children standing up, so I went to ask them to sit down: the shoulders went higher. A couple of children shouting to each other: higher. (Let’s be clear, our children are beautifully behaved so this is the level of what needs to be dealt with in a lunchtime!)

I could feel my outer calm persona beginning to crumble. I knew that unless I did something, I was going to erupt – and then regret it. At that point, I remembered what we’d been discussing in staff meeting the previous evening. We’d spent Autumn Term looking at our children who are currently working towards. On Monday we’d been discussing looking at them in different ways, using the six lenses set out in James Gilmore’s ‘Look’. One of them was ‘rose-tinted glasses’ – looking at just the positives.

I stopped looking for where things were going wrong and started looking for where it was going right. The children sat beautifully eating their food: lower. The member of staff interacting with her children during their lunch hour: lower. Our lunchtime leaders helping the younger children with their water: lower. The child asking for help opening their crackers, with impeccable manners and not needing to be reminded: lower. It was a beautiful experience and it was truly transformational. In a couple of minutes I’d gone from simmering to relaxed. I could physically and mentally feel the difference.

We are often programmed to look for the ‘bad’. What’s going wrong? Where do we need to improve? This is the case for teachers as much as school leaders. We spend a disproportionate amount of time on those children who aren’t getting it. Often we feel a lesson was a ‘disaster’ based on one or two children who didn’t grasp the concept. Our AfL is skewed by the one child who didn’t rather than the 29 that did.

When I was teaching regularly, I often directed a question at the child I didn’t think had got it – that was good assessment, right? However, when they verified my hypothesis, I allowed it to cloud my judgement: none of them have understood; something is going wrong; disaster! As a school leader I’ve been guilty of the same. Only seeing the child who isn’t focused on their learning. Finding the one piece of work that isn’t marked. Spotting the one display board that hasn’t been updated.

There are good reasons for this. Our jobs are based on making improvements. We need to make sure we know who hasn’t understood so that we can help them. We need to have a realistic self assessment of teaching and learning so that we can focus our time, energy and support on those who need it. However, sometimes this can be a) all consuming and b) counter-productive.

Whatever your role I would strongly recommend that you spend some time wearing your rose-tinted glasses. Whether in your classroom or your school so much of what is happening is amazing. Children are learning, behaving beautifully, and generally being incredible human beings. Equally, on a school level, so many of your team are performing above and beyond. So much is happening that would make you incredibly proud. The challenge is to take the time to really see it. I implore you to regularly spend a day, an hour, or even just 5 minutes, looking at the world from a different perspective. It will make you feel better, give you true perspective and help reduce your stress.

Challenges of recruitment

It’s been a fascinating – and generally inspiring – week. I’ve spent it speaking to lots of prospective NQTs; coming towards the latter stages of their training year; looking for their first teaching job. I have several staff going off on maternity leave at the end of this year so I need more new teachers than usual. This is combined with the challenging recruitment market: there have been far fewer applications to the Newham NQT pool than in previous years. As a result, I found myself at ‘NQT Speed Dating’ on Tuesday night. Before I went, I thought long and hard about what I should be telling prospective candidates. I have so much to say about Kensington – what is of use and interest when you only have a short time to grab people’s attention? To help, I spoke to our current NQTs to get their ideas and one of them stuck with me. They said to tell them that, ‘at Kensington you get to teach how you want.’ I found this really interesting.

This idea of autonomy is absolutely at the core of our approach as a school. We fervently believe that, as trained professionals, teachers should have the freedom to decide how best to teach their children. They know them best. They are with them every day. How can I – when I haven’t been full-time in a classroom for four years now – be best placed to tell them what to do and how to do it? Not only that but, surely, part of the joy of being a teacher is having the freedom to take learning in the direction you or your children see fit? To play to your strengths. To draw on the interests of your children. All classes are different. All teachers are different. This should be celebrated and supported as this is when true inspiration and, subsequently, learning take place.

I was further reminded of this as we said goodbye to one of our teachers this week. She had joined us as an NQT at the same time I joined the school. She is a passionate and exceptionally talented baker – she has thousands of followers on Instagram. Her contribution to and impact on the school and the children has been immense. She links an awful lot of her learning to her love of baking and cooking. We’ve fitted out a classroom with ovens and hobs so she can run her baking club. Our bake sales are an integral part of our themed weeks. And children across the school have been inspired. This wouldn’t happen in a one-size-fits-all system. And the children would have been poorer for it.

This is an extreme example but applies across the board. Some of us have a real talent for displays. Others have a genuine skill at developing children’s independence. One of my favourite teachers at secondary school had an exceptionally didactic style. What works with one teacher and one group of children will not work for another.

Of course, this presents challenges. It is inevitably far easier to monitor the ‘quality’ of teaching and learning when everything is dictated by strict policies – I’ll come to this in a future post but it will come as little surprise to those of you who have been regularly reading this blog that I believe teachers are massively over-monitored and the focus is often not on what impacts learning: although this is changing, thankfully. If you HAVE to have an LI (and it has to be an LI, not an LO or a WALT). If you HAVE to have three success criteria. If your English display HAS to be backed in blue and maths in red. If you HAVE to do x before you do y and god forbid you consider doing z! Then it is very easy to identify where you are going wrong and even easier to identify how to put it right. Does any of this impact on learning? Not positively.

It also sounds wonderful in theory but can be terrifying in practice. If you have very strict guidelines on what you must and must not do then it is easy to ‘get it right’. It can be a scary place to be to have all that freedom and worry that you are going to, ‘get in trouble’. Again, does this impact positively on learning? No.

So, at Kensington, we make sure it is combined with high quality CPD and a culture that is positive and supportive. NQTs have an in-school mentor and another mentor we employ across the Trust to provide additional weekly support. They all receive personalised CPD based on their particular needs. We focus whole school training on key areas and block it so that we have the time and space to develop effectively. Everyone has a personal coach to help with their reflection.

Alongside that is the development of a positive and supportive approach. All of that CPD could be overwhelming but we endeavour to ensure that teachers are only working on improving one or two areas at any one time. We filter a huge amount of information to realise this endeavour and only pass on what is necessary, at the appropriate time. We also try and look for ways to be supportive. If you haven’t marked your books, you know you haven’t marked your books. Me coming in and telling you you haven’t marked your books really isn’t going to help anyone. Wherever we can, we look to find ways to support. So, if you haven’t marked your books, how can we help you with that? Is it because you’re over-focusing on another area? Or do you need help with developing your effective marking?

So this was what I told the NQTs I met. It was a double-edged sword. On one hand, I was delighted by the positive response to this. As I outlined our approach, their faces lit up. So many of them told me about their own passions: from art to IT to mental health to sport and physical activity and so much more. These were passionate people: incredibly excited by the possibilities having their own class presented. At the same time, it was depressing. Many told me of the experiences they had had during their training. Schools who had squished them under the iron thumb of ‘that’s not how we do things round here’. You could already see the confidence and energy draining from some as they chased their tales trying to get it all ‘right’. We all know the horrendous attrition rates for newly qualified teachers. Workload is inevitably a big part of this – and another area we are passionate about: you can read about some of our work on this here. But, and I know this might be controversial, I think we need to look at ourselves and the part we play.

People don’t come into teaching because of the positive headlines. There are no illusions. You’re not going to get rich. You’re not going to win very often. You’re going to be vilified far more often than sanctified. So why do it? The answer is so obvious and oft repeated it is not worth stating. But when you dream of changing children’s lives for the better, when you’re lining up your teddy bears and playing schools, when you see yourself standing in front of your class, I guarantee you do it in YOUR way. At no point is your dream one of delivering a rigid medium term plan that outlines which questions you must ask and comes with a ready-prepared flip chart. You never wistfully stare into middle distance contemplating printing out the worksheets that are linked to the unit of work or dogmatically ploughing ever onwards through the dictated seven part lesson, as a single tear forms in the corner of your eye. No. You dream of imparting your passion and enthusiasm to the next generation. Of doing it differently to how it was done unto you so that these children emerge more positive and less scarred by their experiences than you were.

I know that we are not the only school who is providing these freedoms. And, as with many areas, I believe that the general direction of DfE and OFSTED is providing school leaders and teachers with the freedom to pursue these…freedoms. That being said, we need to do more to make these changes and we need to do it quickly. There are only so many times we can crush people’s enthusiasm before they cut themselves free to pursue a better-paid, less maligned career. The power is in our hands.

Teach what’s in front of you


It’s so easy to get caught up in targets and where children ‘need’ to be by the end of the term, year, key stage. This has been compounded by performance-related pay; which now puts even greater pressure on teachers to treat children as numbers rather than individuals. Add to that the focus on school leaders to achieve ever higher results, and you’ve got a pressure cooker of stress and negativity.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying that having targets (in terms of where children need to be) is defunct. We have targets for our children. We use the Fischer Family Trust data to set targets based on the top 5% of schools in the country. We are rightly proud of our academic achievements and the progress our children make. This is undoubtedly, in part, due to the use of targets and the tracking of children’s progress towards these. Where they start to become a force for evil rather than good is when they become the focus of teachers in their classrooms.

Let’s take a step back to consider why this is the case. In my experience, what gets in the way of good teaching and learning is often mindset. Whether you subscribe to ‘The Pygmalion Effect’ or believe Henry Ford’s, ‘Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, either way you’re probably right’, the fact is that mindset plays a huge part in the impact we have as teachers (and leaders). As teachers, when we start to think too far into the future it can often cause panic and stress. This is particularly the case when the school has high expectations and sets challenging targets for children. It is this that can lead to comments and conversations such as:

‘Last year’s assessments were wrong. There’s no way this child could do…at the end of YX.’

‘This child has some sort of need. I’ve spoken to the SENDCo but nothing’s been done.’

‘This child can’t.’

‘This child will never.’

‘I need some extra adults. I can’t teach these children on my own.’

These are all borne out of stress. Teachers, who desperately want the best for their children, but feel they are failing because they just don’t see how their children will reach age-expected or greater depth or whatever your new assessment system labels them as by the end of the year. In Primary, this is particularly true in Y2 and Y6, where the stakes are even higher.

So what happens as a result of this? Teachers get stressed. As we all do – fight or flight – they start to look for excuses and people to blame. This leads to negativity and, more often than not, a rapid drop in challenge for children:

‘Right! Clearly none of you understand this! Let’s go back to basics shall we! What’s 1+1?!’

This drop in challenge leads to a cessation of progress and increased issues with behaviour as those children who can rapidly get frustrated. It means people stop enjoying their jobs. They worry about whether they are going to get in trouble. Are they failing? Are they no good? Will they get that pay rise they so desperately need to keep their heads above water? This builds further stress, which leads to further negativity. They fall out with colleagues. They’re snappy. They get ill so go off sick. And so on and so on and so on.

Ok. I know that I’m painting a bleak, one-size fits all picture here. Clearly not all people react like this to challenging targets. But more and more I see people who are truly stressed because of just this. The irony is that the thing they are stressed about – whether or not the children will get to where they need to – is precisely what is hindering the children from getting there. It’s a vicious cycle and one that needs to be broken.

Ultimately, these targets should be the concern of school leaders and we should not pass our anxieties onto our teachers (unless we believe that in so doing we will get a positive reaction). Teachers need to teach what is in front of them. As soon as a teacher starts to worry about where this child needs to be in six months, they disengage their brain. They stop doing what is right for their children. They stop using their AfL effectively and adapting learning based on children’s responses and what they see unfolding in the classroom and start second guessing. Teaching becomes rigid and formulaic. Challenge starts to dissipate. Behaviour management becomes terse and negative.

The fact is, the best way for children to reach their targets is for you to teach what’s in front of you. If you are adapting the learning based on your assessment: week-to-week; day-to-day; minute-by-minute – you will move children on rapidly. If in the face of adversity – children forgetting what you told them yesterday; the blank stare – you keep challenge high, you will move children on rapidly. If you work on the here and now rather than what may or may not be, you will keep calm, be positive, and be a better teacher as a result.

The fact is, none of us know where any given child is going to be six months from now. Learning is not linear. It is messy. (This is one of the many reasons working in schools is so amazing!) I’ve lost count of the children I’ve met who ‘can’t’ or ‘who will never’ who have and can. Sometimes it can take a few days to unlock the learning potential in a child. Other times it can take a few years. All that matters is to constantly reflect and ask why. Why is this child finding it hard? Why do they present as disinterested/demotivated/disruptive? And, what can I do about it? What can I do now to help them understand? What can I do tomorrow? What am I going to do the next day?

We’ll discuss this in further detail in a later post. For now, I implore you to block out the noise. Ignore the targets. Believe me, if a child is struggling, you’re leadership team will let you know about it soon enough. (Hopefully in a constructive and supportive way but that also is a subject for another post.) All you can do is teach what’s in front of you. If you do that, you will help those children make the most progress they can possibly make. And, at the end of the year, whether they’ve met their targets or not, you can go home full of pride that you’ve done everything in your power to improve their lives and their education.




The picture? Cliched, I know. Ideally I’d pretend that its trite nature is a clever counterpoint to the entirely groundbreaking and fascinating conversations I’ve been lucky enough to spend the day observing and, occasionally, taking part in. I’m not sure I’d be fooling anyone though.

I’ve just spent the last few hours in Stratford at the, ‘Working with families affected by Domestic Abuse’ conference. When I told colleagues, family and friends where I was going they gave me a, ‘I’m so sorry for you’ look and a consoling pat on the arm. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound like an uplifting day but it was truly inspiring.

Firstly, for the content. I’m lucky enough to be a part of the NewDAy project. The project has received funding from the Department for Education’s Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme to ‘rethink’ how children’s social care is delivered. NewDAy is looking at systemic change so that social workers can support families: victims, children and perpetrators, to bring about real change that improves lives. Today’s keynote was delivered by Professor Alan Jenkins – world-renowned clinical psychologist specialising in working with violence in a variety of contexts.

I’d love to neatly summarise the points Professor Jenkins made but I’m still digesting a lot of it. I just hope that I present some of the information accurately. If I don’t, this is simply down to my own interpretation of it.

His thinking on ‘otherness’ and the need for accepting different ideas or ways of thinking really struck a chord – ‘A passionate interest in otherness as an antithesis to violence’. In schools we often try and remove ‘otherness’. Conformity is King (or Queen). This is particularly the case when it comes to ‘behaviour’. I’ve started to discuss our thinking on this in a previous post. We are not particularly accepting of otherness. We reward or sanction children based on pre-conceived ideas of what they should or shouldn’t do. For some children these structures fit with who they are, others are (un)happily compliant, whilst others struggle to fit within these defined boundaries. It’s particularly hard when these boundaries change suddenly. We have an issue currently in Newham with Y7 exclusions. Permanent exclusions in Primary are few and far between but then children move onto secondary school and the numbers shoot up. Clearly the reasons for this are multiple but one is surely the sudden change in the boundaries of behaviour.

There was lots more – the difference between moral imperatives and ethical realisation – which I definitely need more time to digest. The need for co-regulation to allow both parties to enter a productive dialogue and how relevant this is to leadership. The need to look beyond the immediate narrative and dig deeper: at Kensington we talk about ‘finding the why’, which I’ll go into more detail on in a later post. The need to listen. The need to be non-judgemental and probing rather than directive when trying to find reasons and ways forward.

All of this had lots of links into the work we’ve been doing developing a coaching approach. I’m sure I will over-simplify this but the thinking is around moving away from our pre-held judgements and moral imperatives to move toward a more open way of: looking beyond the surface, building a relationship on trust, and helping the perpetrator (in this case) move towards ethical realisation, which will enable them to create a better future for themselves and their families. Whilst the content is far more challenging, the concepts are similar when we are coaching in school. When we coach we look to actively listen. We try not to judge or impose our moral imperatives but instead help the person to reach their own realisation (ethical or otherwise) to find a suitable way forward. We help the person look beneath the surface. As Dermot Brady, Senior Lecturer in Social Care from Kingston University said today (and I’m paraphrasing): rarely are the first stories we tell the true ones. This takes me on to the other inspiring part of today.

As interesting as the content was the discussion and range of people I was fortunate enough to meet and sit with was equally so. Going away from school is always a useful experience – it provides time and space to reflect: almost always this is within an education context. Today, to be in a different context with a group of people who were not working in Primary education, was really eye-opening. At our table was: an advocate who worked for a charity that represented victims of domestic abuse; a social worker for the Ministry of Defence; a senior lecturer from Kingston University; a researcher from Cordis Bright – who are commissioned to evaluate the NewDAy project; a member of the NewDAy project; my Deputy Head, and a senior associate from the Innovation Unit! It was the most incredible range of people, brought together by a will and a passion to improve the situation of children and families impacted by domestic violence. It was a true honour to be in their company for a few hours and has started me thinking about how we could create more of these opportunities. This cross-sector work, engagement and discussion would help all of us develop further. Which, ultimately, would improve our thinking and how we work. Which would lead to better outcomes; in my case for the children of Kensington.

Teaching behaviour


There’s so much in my head right now about this; arguably I should wait for further clarity before trying to communicate. As I’ve said previously, however, this is as much about my own reflection as anything else – starting to untangle the web. So here goes…

At Kensington, we’ve turned our ‘why’ spotlight onto behaviour. In so doing, I think we’ve begun to open Pandora’s Box. Whilst still very much in its infancy, we’re coming round to the idea that behaviour should be taught (rather than ‘managed’), just like reading or writing is.

So how did we end up here?

  • I’ve talked previously about our obsession with looking at ‘why’ we do things and thinking critically about what we do and how we spend our time: that was part of it.
  • In a future post, I’ll talk more about our approach to Growth Mindset. That has subsequently grown into a wider ethos and shared language around our children (and ourselves) and what is possible. In the same way that we don’t have ‘low ability’ children, neither should we have ‘naughty’ children.
  • Again, I’ll write about this at a later date but our focus for Staff CPD in the Spring (and probably Summer) term is all about how to be better versions of ourselves. If we are truthful with ourselves, how often is ‘behaviour management’, us reaching the end of our tether? (Please don’t take this as a criticism. We’ve all been there. It can be unimaginably hard and stressful and we all reach critical mass at some point. But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve and grow and get better at dealing with our own emotions.)
  • Conversations with my wife, Chloe, about her experiences at Duncombe Primary under Barry O’Shea, have always stuck with me. I’ve never met Barry but I know he had a significant influence on Chloe. He believed that behaviour management should be 100% positive. That’s definitely contributed to this.
  • Dealing with ‘behaviour’ – both at school and with my children at home – has contributed greatly. Much of the time, what you are dealing with is the child’s want for revenge:’Mr Levinson, Petra was mean to me. She said I’m a banana head.’ So off you dutifully go to tell Petra that wasn’t very nice and she should say sorry. In the meantime, Irfan, who’s come over to tell you this, is standing behind you, smirking at Petra in a, ‘see, I told you I was going to tell sir and you’d get in trouble.’

    Ultimately, what has this achieved? Has this improved anything? Is Irfan less likely to do this again? I believe that if we want to help children. If we want them to be independent, resilient, confident, self-motivated individuals, then rather than fighting their battles for them, we should be giving them the strategies to deal with it themselves.

So, all of this has contributed to our thinking. Initially, we have started to look more closely at why we do things currently. So why do children go to the Restart Room (a room supposedly for contrition and reflection)? Why do we move children up and down on the traffic lights? What are our consequences or sanctions for children who behave in a way that contradicts our rules or the rules of society in general? Is there ever a reason to shout at a child?

Again, we don’t want to do something because that is what’s always been done. Behaviour management is a fundamental part of schools vocabulary and approach. It takes up a great deal of your time, energy and worry as a trainee teacher and then as an NQT and beyond. It fills a huge amount of column inches. In many schools it is a major focus of middle and senior leadership. Yet when you start to step back and look at it more critically, it becomes ever more bizarre.

Why are we ‘managing behaviour’? What does that even mean? Everyone ‘behaves’ in one way or another at every moment of every day. (I’m not going to get into a huge philosophical discussion here about what behaviour is and whether or not we should impose the conventions of society on children. Or about how different those conventions are in different countries, ethnicities, age groups etc, etc. Partly because my thinking hasn’t evolved far enough yet for me to know exactly where I stand on it all.) More importantly, however, why are we ‘managing behaviour’ but teaching everything else. Surely children need to learn how to behave in exactly the same way they need to learn how to read or do complex algebra?

To briefly take a step back, I appreciate that there is a lot of implicit (and even some explicit) teaching of behaviour. Reward and sanction systems are there to reinforce ‘positive’ behaviour and deter ‘negative’. PSED is core to the Early Years curriculum. PSHCE, P4C, UNICEF Rights Respecting Schools, and a million and one others are all there to ‘teach’ children right from wrong. In the end though, we ‘manage behaviour’: that is the mindset.

Would you sanction a child who couldn’t do column addition? No, you’d give them feedback, provide them with strategies, model for them, and encourage them. If they found learning particularly hard, you might look beyond the immediate and dig deeper: family background, previous experiences, confidence, self-belief. Once you identified what the barriers were, you’d start trying to unpick these, helping them to succeed and progress.

Behaviour is no different. We’re not born with the ability to multiply, neither are we born with an innate understanding of how to behave within the norms set down by society or institutions. We need to learn. Equally, I don’t believe people are ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’. Some people are born more compliant. Our early experiences are definitely hugely formative in regard to our subsequent mindset and behaviours. Some people’s behaviours, attitudes and outlook are so warped by what has happened to them – and possibly they were already genetically vulnerable – that changing their behaviour and attitudes becomes incredibly complex. However, none of this is ever ‘impossible’. Certainly, when we are talking about children, we should never be writing them off as ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’. Some will certainly find it harder to learn, as some find it harder to learn how to read, but all can.

As I started with, I think this post is probably a reflection of where our thinking currently is: formative and consequently messy. What I do know is that we’ve started the conversation. I also believe we have begun something important. I’m not completely sure, yet, where it will lead us. I do, however, believe that teaching behaviour is the key component.

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome. I’ll provide an update as our web becomes less tangled.

Footnote: I’d written this post a couple of weeks ago when it I had time and it was fresh in my head with a view to publishing at the ‘right’ time. Having just returned from the, ‘Working with families affected by domestic abuse conference’, it seems like the right time. Rather than further convoluting this post with the fascinating discussions I’ve had today, I’m going to publish and then quickly dash off a second post recounting some of today and how it links to this.

Managing change – Part 2: Control vs Freedom


Freedom means something different to all of us. For me, it’s definitely outdoors: wide-open spaces; no-one for miles; ideally at the first crack of dawn.

Freedom is often a tale of two halves in teaching. On the one hand, walk into that classroom and those thirty eager young minds are your’s for the moulding. You have the freedom to take that learning where you want; deliver it the way you want; respond and discuss the ideas that are raised how you want. Equally, there are few professions so over-policed. Continual learning walks, observations, work scrutinies, planning scrutinies, School Improvement visits, OFSTED, data analysis etc, etc. The challenge we have faced as a school, and continue to face, is when do we need ‘control’ and when do we need ‘freedom’.

In the early days of my time at Kensington, we felt control was definitely more necessary. There wasn’t much of a curriculum to speak of. Planning, marking and teaching were of very varied quality. Being directive felt like the best and quickest way to bring about change. As a result, that’s what we did. There were strict guidelines on how and when to mark. Clear formats for planning. Set criteria for teaching – which were monitored through (extremely) extensive observation forms: 2014-15 Evaluation of Quality of Teaching and Learning, that listed a myriad of areas you would want to see covered in a lesson. It all seems like a certain kind of madness now but the school was in a very different place and, ultimately, we got to where we needed to.

As the school has progressed, so has our thinking. One of our most considered topics, in many different guises, has been where do we provide greater freedom and where do we need to retain control? It’s an ongoing conversation. Our monitoring has gone through a number of different iterations and, today, we no longer carry out formal observations but, instead, gather our information through regular learning walks, conversations with children and staff, and a variety of other mechanisms. The forms we gather this on are simplified too – General scrutiny 17-18 – with the ‘+’ for listing everything that is positively impacting on learning and the ‘-‘ anything that is detracting from or stopping learning. Teachers are encouraged to plan however they see fit. There is a Word template but, equally, they can plan on flip charts or using other methods if that suits them better. Marking is guided by a policy – Marking and feedback policy 2017-2018 – but the policy asks teachers to, ‘use your professional judgment to decide when is the right time to surface mark, when it needs highlighting, or when a next step comment is the right approach.’ Equally, there is no set way to teach. No didactic rules about LO/LI/WALT or success criteria.

Philosophically, we believe this is the ‘right’ way: teachers are professionals and should be treated as such. They should be able to make professional judgments and do as they see fit. Learning is not one size fits all and a one size fits all approach is unlikely to ever be as successful as one that can be adapted and moulded by a professional who knows their children best. Nevertheless, it brings challenges. This is fine where teachers are experienced and doing well; more difficult when they are newly qualified or struggling with the demands of the job.

So too with the monitoring. Whilst we want to reduce this, we also have a responsibility to ensure our children are getting the standard of education they deserve. It would be wonderful to be able to leave this to trust, but also irresponsible. Irresponsible as much to our staff as our children. For many, if they are struggling they won’t want to come forward or may not even realise before it’s too late. Monitoring helps to identify who needs our help and support so it can be provided in a nonjudgmental way, and as quickly as possible.

As ever, it is not clear cut – and, as ever, we are not ‘there’ yet. Whilst the Utopian vision may be one of all teachers having the freedom to develop learning in their classroom, unfettered by the chains of ‘control’ and ‘monitoring’, the reality is different. As it stands, we have a relatively ‘free’ approach, with light touch monitoring – although still very regular in the context of other professions – supported by an extensive programme of CPD to help all staff develop skills and knowledge. Feedback aims to focus on the positives: bolstering confidence and motivating staff further. Next steps are aimed at being manageable and on key areas of development, not the minutiae.  I would like to think that this is something we can continue to develop.

All of this is possible because of where the school is now. As leaders, one of the many challenges, is deciding when a ‘freer’ approach is appropriate and when greater control is required. Whether here or in another school, the future may demand a different approach and philosophical beliefs may be outweighed by current realities.

For Kensington over the next year or two, Utopia may not be attainable…but we could at least reach the outer walls.

Managing change – Part 1: Communication

7B17D218-92C4-47D3-AB7B-95E02FAE53ED’Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.’ Mike Tyson

Iron Mike isn’t necessarily the person I turn to for quotable material on a regular basis. However, when I came across this quote it seemed incredibly apt for the school environment. From the beautifully framed question that draws blank stares, to the meticulously planned (and over-resourced) lesson that is in tatters two minutes in, all the way to the strategic objective that was so brilliant on paper and so not happening in real life. The modern world is all about change: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. Inevitably, modern leadership is all about managing that change.

Change and how to manage it has been a continual question for me personally and for the team at Kensington from day one. Initially, change was about the here and now. OFSTED were banging on the door since the RI judgement – Section 8 inspection; Progress Board meetings – progress was expected and it was expected to happen now. (To note: as it should be. Schools not providing a sufficient quality of education do not have a moment to waste. The children don’t get a second chance at that year, month, week or day.) Later, when that pressure lifted slightly as the situation improved, it was about how to deliver change across the board and put in place the foundations for long-term improvement. Beyond that, it has been about how to sustain the high-levels achieved but also continue to evolve. The type of change and the style of leadership needed differed greatly in each stage. However, throughout all of this there has been one constant: the balance between enacting rapid change and ensuring it is manageable.

One of the many things I am incredibly proud of is that, since starting at Kensington, staff turnover has been incredibly low. Inevitably, in that first term, a few people decided it wasn’t for them. However, since that time, staffing has stayed extremely stable and the few people who have decided to move on have done so largely because they were moving abroad or going for promotions that weren’t available in the school at that time. Given the level of change the school has experienced, that is surprising.

One of the reasons for this is that we have constantly monitored what is happening on the ground. I made a decision to base myself in an office with my senior team. It has its challenges: mainly distractions, no thinking time, and the difficulty in having confidential meetings or discussions. However, it has also meant that communication is excellent and we are continually sharing the ‘small’ conversations. These might be little snippets: someone is finding it hard to set the homework; someone else is annoyed that the date of the class assembly has been changed; the photocopier isn’t working, again. This sort of information can often go unnoticed or be ignored but it is a vital part of the big picture. Properly monitored and fed into the overall feedback loop, it can provide an early warning of serious issues on the horizon, which can then be dealt with before they become catastrophic.

This information is gathered by myself and my senior team being out and about around the school. This isn’t a formal process. We make sure we take the time to say good morning to people. We’re out in the playground before school and after school. We walk the school daily. We’re in the lunch hall at lunchtime. All of these interactions and conversations potentially provide useful information. Don’t get me wrong, not every single conversation is pivotal! Most of the time it’s ‘business as usual’. However, if something is amiss, more often than not this is how it is picked up in the first instance.

We also have more structured methods for feedback – many of which will be common in many schools. We have weekly Phase Meetings, which have an inbuilt feedback loop in place: from Phase Meetings to Wider Leadership Team meetings and back to Phase Meetings. We have a weekly briefing for all staff and a shared noticeboard. We carry out an annual staff survey; using Survey Monkey to help us interpret the data. We invite as many visitors into the school as we possibly can, always taking the opportunity to take them around the school and listen carefully to their insights. We involve everyone in creating our School Development Plan and mapping out our calendar for the year ahead.

Of course, you can have all the information you want, what is important is what you do with it. And this is where Iron Mike comes in.

Through our multiple feedback loops, there have been three significant occasions when we have identified that the school has been close to breaking point. That is, the level and speed of change that is being enacted is not sustainable. At each point, we have responded rapidly and decisively. In one instance, we put on hold what we were doing, gathered anonymous feedback from all staff on the challenges they were facing, and then put together an action plan based on this: junking significant parts of our pre-prepared development plan in the process. In another, we stripped out chunks of what had been planned for that term to reduce workload. There have been so many tweaks and interventions as a result of the information we’ve gathered, it is impossible to know how many other potential crises were avoided at a much earlier point.

This might not seem like a great deal but I believe this ability to respond to the prevailing circumstances – to adapt plans when we get punched in the face – is one of the key reasons for the positive atmosphere, and stable workforce, within the school, and for our subsequent success.

Pareto’s principle


This term at Kensington, all of our staff training is focused on ‘Being the best version of yourself’. I’ll talk more about this in a later post but, ultimately, the focus is on how to ensure we turn up and deliver our best day in, day out. With the research published today that, More than half of all teachers have been diagnosed with mental health issues, I believe this is more important than ever. So often our best is hampered by anxiety, lack of confidence or stress. We do more but do it worse, resulting in worse outcomes for ourselves and our children.

Whilst this term staff wellbeing is our key focus, this has been something I have focused on for some time. In fact, my very first staff INSET at Kensington four years ago was on, ‘what stops you doing the best job you can do’. At the time this was more functional – in line with where the school was at. We’ve moved on from there but we still have more to do. One area we have looked at over the last couple of years is the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. This is a theory maintaining that 80 percent of the output from a given situation or system is determined by 20 percent of the input.

This theory has interested me for a long time. It fits so well with the overall ethos of Kensington.

A: In schools (as with so many sectors) everyone has far too much to do. So…

B: We need to prioritise our work and make binary decisions – If I do more of X I have to do less of Y. So…

C: How do I prioritise?

This links really well with our approach of THINK or asking why we do something. So often prioritisation is based on the wrong factors or just not considered at all.

How we prioritise:

– What we want to do first (and what we don’t want to do last).
– What the most senior member of staff has asked for first (or the person we have the best relationship with).
– The ‘tick box’ priority – completing the report; filling in the data; creating the weekly plan in the correct format.

And so on. As always, it’s not clear cut but, at Kensington, we have tried to put our time and energy into what makes the most difference to children’s learning first and foremost. This also has the added benefit of supporting staff wellbeing and workload. There is nothing more demoralising than spending hours doing something that has no or little impact on your prime purpose – children’s learning and development.

On reflection, the application of 80/20 has been equally about what we do less of (or what is simplified/automated) as much as what we do more of – as it has to be when there are only so many hours in a day. We started by looking at the latest research, which is discussed more here, and identifying what made the biggest difference. As discussed in an earlier post, this included: marking; the implementation of growth mindset; assessment; language development, and planning. Subsequently, we’ve moved onto CPD and our children’s needs outside of the core curriculum.

With marking, in the moment marking has a greater impact than distance marking. The use of highlighters and a culture that encourages teachers to do most of their marking in the lessons, with the children, both supports progress and reduces workload.

Meta-cognition – learning how to learn – has been shown to make a significant impact on progress. We’ve focused on Growth Mindset and we’re now evolving this into our Kensington Futures programme.

At the same time we’ve reduced the planning burden by providing quality medium-term plans that provide detail but allow for teachers to adapt and tailor to their children. There are no burdensome planning templates: teachers are encouraged to plan how they see fit, whether this is on paper or flip charts; annotating weekly plans or creating new ones.

Formative assessments are recorded online and, whilst we’ve a way to go with this, teachers are encouraged to record them in the class, while working with the children. The system is used for gap analysis to inform planning and produces the data required by leaders to inform strategic decisions – no need for teachers to recreate the data or create further tables or spreadsheets. It also creates automatic reports at the end of the year: summarising what the children can do and what they need to do next. Again, reducing a massive workload, which had minimal impact – most of the information sharing with parents about children’s progress and next steps is done verbally through structured meetings or informal conversations. Homework, repeatedly shown to have little impact on Primary age children’s progress, is optional and focused on the basics: spellings, reading, times tables. Teachers are expected to acknowledge children’s efforts but there is no in-depth marking.

All of this allows for more time and energy to be spent on the 20% that makes the 80% of difference. There is still more work to be done on this and we plan to revisit the idea and further personalise it as we believe the 20% varies from class to class and across the age-range. However, the idea is there. The further we can refine the 20% that makes the difference, the greater the impact we can have on learning, without staff burning out in their first few years and leaving the profession.